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CD Review

Pérotin and the Ars Antiqua

Coro 16046
  • Pérotin:
  • Viderunt Omnes
  • Alleluia. Nativitas
  • Sederunt Principes
  • Léonin:
  • Gloria: Redemptori Meo
  • Anon. 12th Century:
  • Mundus Vergens
  • Anon. 13th Century:
  • Vetus Abit Littera
  • Deus Misertus Hominis
  • Veni Creator Spiritus
  • Haec Dies
  • Strips Lesse
  • Procurans Odium/Christus Surrexit
The Hilliard Ensemble
Coro Hilliard Live 1 COR16046
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Hilliard Live is a new project by The Hilliard Ensemble to test the water for their own self-publishing enterprise. More significantly it aims to capture the atmosphere of a live concert – fluffs and all (not many here!) – and present to CD buyers the vivid experience of listening, in this case, to an hour or so of twelfth and thirteenth century music recorded in Trinity College Chapel, Cambridge, during the August 2006 Hilliard Summer School. Of the four then members of The Hilliard Ensemble, John Potter (tenor) has since been replaced by Steven Harrold. David James (countertenor), Rogers Covey-Crump (tenor) and Gordon Jones (baritone) remain. This recording is well up to the Hilliard's usual standard; the solo and ensemble singing are superb, although there is a greater degree of measured spontaneity (if that's not contradictory) in the way especially some of the shorter pieces here are performed.

There are two works known to be by Pérotin (Viderunt omnes and Sederunt principes), two of his most celebrated pieces; and Alleluia. Nativitas, probably by Pérotin, but listed as 'Anon/Pérotin'. Only one piece (Gloria: redemptori meo) by Léonin; but seven anonymous items from the thirteenth century and one from the twelfth. Together this is the period of the Ars Antiqua. Much of what we know of this music and associated writings was first written down by the monk probably from Bury St. Edmunds in East Anglia, who also gave his name to the contemporary early music ensemble, Anonymous IV. It was a movement flourishing in the fifty years either side of 1200 in Paris. Léonin wrote a cycle of two-part settings of the most important chants in the church year, called the Magnus liber organi. Pérotin's role is not completely clear although we do know that he either shortened and/or edited the Magnus liber (which probably contained long improvisatory sections) in accordance with the more rigorous principles of descant composition which he seems likely to have developed. Specifically, Pérotin advanced the idea that plainchant did not have to be restricted to two parts: the tighter rhythmic precision he evolved made it easier to co-ordinate the greater complexity (including the canon – one of Pérotin's greatest contributions to music) of three and four parts.

Most notably, it is indeed Viderunt omnes and Sederunt principes, possibly performed at the Christmases of 1198 and 1199 respectively, which illustrate this development. Pérotin's other great innovation was the conductus, the newly-composed settings of non-liturgical Latin accentual poetic texts (rithmi) in from one to four parts. There are three conducti on this CD, Vetus Abit Littera, Deus misertus hominis and Mundus Vergens (all four-part) with Veni Creator Spiritus and Procurans Odium (both three part). As with most conducti their poetic and stanzaic structure are regular, allowing some repetition of musical material. There are two ways in which conducti can be performed: isosyllabic and modal.

In isosyllabic performance each syllable of the poetry is rendered (almost) equal with groups of two or three notes fitted accordingly. Deus Misertus Hominis and Mundus Vergens are performed isosyllabically. Veni Creator Spiritus and Procurans Odium are performed modally – this is to say the rhythmic modes familiar from the clausulae (polyphonic sections of descant (to be) inserted as replacement sections of organum into a larger work) are superimposed on the music aiming to reflect the poetry's accentual qualities. Vetus Abit Littera has a musical structure such that it is treated in a hybrid fashion.

Most of Pérotin's and Léonin's work is centered firmly in Paris. But this disc contrasts the organa and conducti of Notre Dame with Alleluia. Nativitas, which seems to have been composed in England and adopted by Pérotin for his setting – hence the double attribution. Similarly Gloria: Redemptori Meo exists in a manuscript in Cambridge as well as Paris… it's a setting of the beginning of the 'Gloria' to which has been added new text. The remainder of items on this disc are from south-west France. Christus Surrexit is a monophonic sequence from Aquitaine accompanying Strips Iesse.

So this is a carefully thought-out program designed to be representative, varied and of considerable aesthetic merit. It succeeds. The singing is full, clear, spontaneous and generous. One small cavil might be that, given the somewhat 'dark' and even aggressive nature of some of these works ('Inciting hatred, the act of pulling people apart scarcely rejoices at its own effect upon those it divides', in Procurans odium, for example), the Hilliard Ensemble tends at times almost to be pulling punches: not so much holding back, as keeping the tension to themselves. Although we know nothing, of course, about how the clerics who presumably first sang these words reacted to their violence ('The world, turning in revolt, proving its destruction by its result, shakes itself free from falsehood'), it does seem possible that they added to the words' impact by a little more 'temper' than the Hilliards give us. You might also want to fade out the applause at the end of the breathtaking Sederunt principes: the understandably enthusiastic reception of the audience in Cambridge certainly breaks the spell.

Many gems here, then. Clearly recorded and presented. The two longest pieces are Viderunt omnes and Sederunt principes, which occupy almost a third of the disc. Procurans Odium is under two minutes and the rest of the dozen items between two and seven minutes. The booklet is informative, very informative, and contains all (Latin) texts and English translations. If you're new to the Ars Antiqua phase of early music, admire the Hilliard Ensemble for their focus and sound or want alternative recordings particularly of two of Pérotin's greatest works to either the earlier Hilliard disc (ECM 1395), truly excellent though it is, or the even more inspiring Tonus Peregrinus CD, 'Sacred Music From Notre-dame Cathedral' (Naxos 8.557340), then this live Coro recording is definitely worth a look. Recommended.

Copyright © 2007, Mark Sealey

Trumpet